Duncan Hines: More than a Mix

7:52 p.m. July 24—

America’s small towns continue to turn to hometown heroes in efforts to cook up tourism. I’ve seen it with Dean Martin Days in Steubenville, Ohio and the Donna Reed Festival in Denison, Iowa. Now Bowling Green, Ky.. (pop 55,000) is paying tribute to native son Duncan Hines with a festival and a new exhibit at Western Kentucky University’s Kentucky Museum.

Duncan was down with this quaint regionalism.

Since transportation and refrigeration systems were erratic in the 1930s and 40s, Hines figured locally grown foods would be the freshest. Hines was the precursor to the Zagat Guide, publishing the handy “Adventures In Good Eating” guide from 1935 until his death in 1959. Duncan got around. Here’s his comment on the “Top of the Mark” at the Hotel Mark Hopkins (one of my favorite views in America) from his 1950 edition of “Adventures In Good Eating:”………..

….”Strictly speaking, this is not an eating place but a cocktail lounge. Even if you drink only Coca-Cola, by all means visit it. The view from this lounge on Nob Hill, is beautiful. Open from 10 a.m.”

Sounds like Duncan just wanted an excuse to visit.

Duncan was born on March 23 , 1880 in Bowling Green. He adored his hometown so much that he spent his later years north of town in a ranch house without of bedroom. We recently followed the Duncan Hines Trail, accompanied by Cora Jane Spiller, his oldest, closest living relative.

Spiller recalled hitting the road with her husband Robert in the 1950s to rendezvous with Uncle Duncan in New Orleans when he introduced his cake mix to grocers there. “And we would go to Mammoth Cave for Sunday dinner,” she said. “Everybody would order something. He would place one order of three or four things on the menu and we would pass them around.”

Like a Southern Pat Bruno, Hines took notes abut also relied on his memory. “He had a little note pad,” said Spiller, who still lives near Bowling Green. “He wouldn’t write in the restaurant, but he would when he got in the car or back to the motel.”

Louis Hatchett, author of the biography, “Duncan Hines: The Man Behind the Cake Mix” attended the exhibit opening. He wrote, “He created within the public mind an attitude that restaurant kitchens should be immacutely clean and above suspicion. In time, thanks to him, restaurant patrons came to demand that criteria, no matter where they dined.”

The new exhibit at Western Kentucky University includes items like the General Electric “Liberator” automatic electric range (circa 1953-54) with a clock, two timers and salt and pepper shakers. But Duncan didn’t cook that much. He was old school in the south, where “liberated” men didn’t cook until the barbecue grill was introduced.

“He loved hams,” Spiller continued as she stood in front of Duncan’s old haunt, which is now a funeral home. “He bought hams in Bowling Green. They shipped a lot of hams out of this house. He had no bedroom. His living room had a bed that came out of the wall.”

The Hardy and Sons Funeral Home has been in the same Bowling Green family since 1926. Current funeral director William B. Hardy, Jr. remembered moving into the house in 1960, a year after Hines’ death. “The Hines family would whitewash anything that didn’t move,” Hardy said during a conversation on the patio. “All the trees had whitewash up to three feet. Remember, I’m in the third grade so I think I’ve been dropped off into the Garden of Eden. We had every type of apple and peach here. It was a neat place to grow up. I didn’t know it was a funeral home. I thought I was the only kid in Bowling Green who had a Coke machine in his backyard.”

Here is what is so sweet about small town celebrity tourism:

Hardy was eager to point out Hines’ original cedar closet in the remodeled funeral home bathroom. So he led Cora Jane, me, my traveling companion Lynn, Marissa Butler and Katie Frassinelli from the Bowling Green Convention & Visitor’s Bureau into the bathroom. We stood in the crowded bathroom as if were in a college prank. But we saw the closet where Duncan likely kept his antacid.

The Hines home was on a five acre plot of land. According to the Louis Hatchett biography “The Man Behind The Cake Mix,” Duncan wanted a place in the country “where he could sit on the front porch in the evening and chain-smoke cigarettes while watching the cars go by.” Hines planted a 20-foot bed of petunias in front of the house and the flower bed remains today.

His motto was “Have what you want, but want what you have.”

In March 2004, Pinnacle Foods Corporation acquired the Duncan Hines brand from Aurora Foods, who had purchased it from Procter & Gamble in 1998. Duncan Hines remains the nations’ second largest baking mix companies.

For more information on Duncan Hines, visit www.duncanhinesfestival.com

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